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World Water Day 2017: Finally, the UN realized wastewater governance is important

This week, on March 22nd, we celebrated World Water Day. The theme for 2017 (and also the topic for the 2017 World Water Assessment Report) was the sudden realization that water that we use to flush toilets, wash dishes and produce goods and services is a waste unless we recover it (Wastewater: The Untapped Resource). All of a sudden, in 2017, the UN and its allied water agencies realized “Why Waste Water?”

Well, I would be a lot more impressed if I hadn’t been saying the same since, well, 2002. FIFTEEN YEARS.

One of the things that amazes me the most about studying water governance is the lack of interdisciplinary thought. To anybody who studies civil or environmental or chemical engineering, using water to wash waste is stupid. Using the basic mass balance equation, if you pollute clean water, you get wastewater and if you dispose of it, you’re losing it. Most water scholars I know who look at domestic (national-level) issues are concerned with access to clean water (and in Mexico, a large number of them are preoccupied with agricultural-use water). But I rarely hear anyone discuss the realities of how much wastewater we generate, how little treatment we provide and how few functioning sewage treatment plants we have. Social scientists seem to care very little about wastewater.

We ARE wasting water.

In my own research, I found that almost 60% of the wastewater treatment plants that were supposed to be operating in the Lerma-Chapala river basin in Mexico are actually functioning below capacity and suffering from poor infrastructure maintenance and lack of funding. Wastewater treatment is a function of local governments and yet, their water utilities are chronically underfunded and lacking in robust infrastructure and human capital.


You would have thought the world would have woken up to the fact that wastewater is an untapped resource decades ago. Heck, 2008 was the International Year of Sanitation. And yet, we still are just starting to focus, 9 years later, on how we can better treat and govern wastewater.

The other thing that bothers me is the lack of in-depth research on the topic of wastewater governance. I have read the WWAP report and it cites a lot of UN publications, but not the mainstream research I’ve found (or I’ve written) on wastewater and its governance. Given that my research on wastewater governance has been published since 2004, I am also slightly taken aback that the WWAP report didn’t cite me, not even on urban wastewater governance in Latin America, where I recently published a chapter on the topic. And it’s not like they didn’t cite publications in Spanish (they did, and I’ve published in that language too).

Anyway, I’m glad UN Water and the WWAP are appearing to be taking wastewater governance more seriously now, hopefully they’ll do something about it in the next few years, and I also hope it won’t be only lip service to the serious needs for wastewater treatment in developing countries.

Posted in World Water Day, academia, wastewater, water governance.

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